Harriet Lane Johnston: A Lifetime of Loss

When people talk about Harriet Lane Johnston, they tend to focus on all the outstanding elements in her life. Behind these exceptional stories is a reoccurring story of loss. Like many Victorians, Harriet knew death well. Today’s post explores the grief that coexisted with the timeline of Harriet’s public and political accomplishments.

Rife with Tuberculosis

Tuberculosis, known by contemporaries as consumption, was a common disease in the Victorian era. It is a potentially deadly bacterial disease that affects the lungs. Though the disease ran rampant for many years prior, Robert Koch would not identify it as a bacterial infection until 1882. Even with this discovery, many would still suffer and die from tuberculosis. By the late 19th century, 70-90% of American and European urban populations contracted the disease and 80% of those infected died from it.

Harriet Lane’s family would not escape tuberculosis unscathed.

Tuberculosis within the Lane Family in Harriet’s Early Years

Harriet grew up with her mother, father, and siblings in Mercersburg, PA. They lived in a home Harriet’s Uncle Thomas Lane built on Main Street. Tuberculosis soon entered the Lane home. As years progressed, it would take nearly half of the family.

Harriet’s brother, William, passed away when he was 1 year old. Harriet was just 4 years old at the time of his death. One year later, Harriet’s brother, Thomas passed away of the same disease when he was 18. Jane Buchanan Lane, Harriet’s mother, died at the age of 46 when Harriet was 9 years old. Nine months later, her father, Elliot Toll Lane died.

It was the death of Elliot Toll Lane that altered the course of Harriet’s life forever. She eventually went to live with her Uncle Buchanan. There, she lived with her cousin, James Buchanan “Buck” Henry, whose own parents had died from tuberculosis. Though she was not without siblings. James Buchanan Lane, Elliot Eskridge Lane, and Mary Lane would survive into adulthood.

Loss in Harriet’s Early Adulthood

While Harriet was politically active in her uncle’s career, her travels around the world and life as First Lady were clouded by grief.

In October 1855, Harriet Lane prepared to leave Europe and return home to America. She had spent over a year in Europe while her uncle Buchanan served as Minister to Great Britain. She had befriended Queen Victoria, traveled to places like Belgium and France, and immersed herself in British society. When she docked in the United States around 17 October 1855, Harriet was spinning with the excitement of her voyage and future plans for her sister, Mary, to visit the following spring.

She did not know that Mary Lane Baker had died on 13 October 1855.

The news of her sister’s death sent Harriet into deep grief. Her grief was so strong that Buchanan scolded her in a letter dated 18 January 1856:

“Your mourning for the dear who has departed would seem to be beyond the limits of reasonable grief & Christian resignation to the divine will. You seem to be in danger of violating your duties to yourself & to your friends by indulging in vain regrets for her who, I trust, is in a better world. […] From my knowledge of your character, I do not believe you are subject more than others to moping melancholy grief.”

The National Hotel Disease

Photograph of Elliot Eskridge Lane
Elliot Eskridge Lane, Harriet Lane’s Brother, from the collection at LancasterHistory

1856 dawned with the death of Harriet’s uncle, John Newton Lane and a year of campaigning for Buchanan’s presidency. Harriet remained active in support of her uncle, but another shadow of grief would come in March 1857.

Just a few weeks after assuming her role as First Lady of the United States, Harriet received the news that her brother, Elliot Eskridge Lane, died in Lancaster at age 37 from the National Hotel Disease. She would leave Washington, D.C. with her cousin, Buck Henry, to attend his funeral. After the funeral, late 19th century historian, Laura Holloway wrote:

“When Miss Lane returned to her uncle, it was not to parade her trouble, but quietly and cheerfully to assist him in his social and domestic life; to keep her grief for her closet, and in the endurance of it, to ask no help but God’s. Yet all who saw her, subdued but dignified, as she received familiar friends during; those first months in Washington, were struck with the elegant repose of her manners, her sweet thanks for sympathy, and her kind and gentle interest in everything about her.” (Holloway, Ladies of the White House, pp 550)

The Last Remaining Lane Sibling

Photograph of opened gold locket, revealing a turning circular center with locks of hair from the Lane family.
Harriet’s mourning locket with locks of hair from her parents and siblings, from the collection at LancasterHistory. 

After the end of Buchanan’s presidential term in 1861, Harriet Lane returned to Wheatland and a life of traveling. On 18 January 1863, James Buchanan Lane died at the age of 49, leaving Harriet as the last surviving Lane at 32 years old. His death prompted Harriet to visit her uncle Edward Buchanan and his family at the Oxford Church in Philadelphia. Edward Buchanan was an Episcopal Priest, and through his guidance, she became a confirmed and admitted member of the Episcopal Church.

As was common practice in the Victorian era, Harriet carried locks of hair from all the Lane family members. She had each lock of hair preserved in a spherical locket that, when opened, could rotate to reveal the locks of hair and corresponding names of each of her family members.

The Grief of a Mother and a Wife

Mourning Portrait of James Buchanan Johnston and Henry Elliot Johnston Jr.
Mourning portrait of James Buchanan Johnston (left) and Henry Elliot Johnston Jr. (right), from the collection at LancasterHistory

In an earlier blog post, we discussed Harriet’s marriage to Henry Elliot Johnston on 11 January 1866. The couple would go on to have two sons, James Buchanan Johnston and Henry Elliot Johnston Jr. Our president, James Buchanan, would live to see the birth of James Buchanan Johnston, but would pass away before meeting Henry Elliot Johnston Jr.

As a young family, the Johnstons lived predominantly in Baltimore, Maryland and used Wheatland as a summer home. They also traveled frequently throughout America and Europe. Their years as a family were cut short with the death of James Buchanan Johnston on 25 March 1881. He died of rheumatic fever at the age of 14.

Fifteen months later, Henry Elliot Johnston Jr. died of the same disease on 30 October 1882 while the family vacationed in Nice, France. He was just 12 years old.

Two years later, Harriet’s husband would pass away on 5 May 1884 of pneumonia. In just three years, Harriet lost her entire family by the time she was 54.

A Story of Carrying On

In her grief, Harriet sold Wheatland in 1884, and would eventually sell her home in Baltimore in 1896. She spent the later years of her life traveling and living with her cousin and companion, May Seldon Kennedy. As the last surviving Lane and Johnston, Harriet would take her grief quietly and set to work on public service missions we regularly discuss today. Those include preserving Buchanan’s memory, bequeathing art to establish a national art gallery, establishing a school for choirboys, and setting funds to create a children’s hospital in Baltimore. Her name still lives on in pediatric care. The Harriet Lane Handbook is a manual for pediatric care still in use today. Johns Hopkins Children’s Center has a clinic in Harriet’s name.

Though her legacy is noteworthy, it comes on the heels of a lifelong grief that Harriet carried until her death on 3 July 1903.

Gaining perspective from the history left behind at Wheatland, Museum Associate Stephanie Celiberti explores the world that James Buchanan inhabited, digging up the intricacies of daily life in the 19th century to better understand the ins-and-outs of those who came before us. By walking in the shoes—quite literally—of the Victorians, she challenges a new understanding of history—one that is tactile and present with our world today. 

From History From The House